Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis…..
The Requiem Mass is said for the dead. It takes its name from the opening lines of the first prayer of this Mass – the Introit. The Requiem had long been special to men and women from classical times. From earliest times rites of death differentiate us as types of species from majority who share our planet. It seems Neanderthal man had burial rites and we must assume it was a characteristic of most of our common ancestors.
We have a word for the edifices great and small – Mausoleums – named after the edifice erected by King Mausolus – one of the wonders of the ancient world in its time – buildings characterised the classical world as it had those of the Egyptians. The pyramids and Egyptian books of the dead served a millenium; the necropolis of Roman and Greek cities yet another millenium; in the post Roman dispensation these funerary traditions were inherited and eventually embellished. The Requiem is the very special gift of Medieval piety to the ongoing Christian tradition. It bestows upon death the peculiar specialness – perhaps sanctity is the right word – we feel we ought to bestow upon a life’s end. There are others of course and others traditions in other cultures all have their equal value.
The Requiem evokes the unique gift of both a life and its loss. Its poetry has inspired music from the outset – at first plainchant – then later it inspired composers almost unlike any other rite in the liturgy of the church. Cimarosa; Mozart; Donizetti; Brahms; Dvorak; Faure; There is a list of them here which is a cute thing in its own right – forgive the pun. www.requiemsurvey.org/composers.php?start=22&sex=0
In this century Britten reflected the sense shared loss and shared catastrophe that became the legacy of the first World War and he used the requiem and the texts of some of the poetry of Wilfred Owen to give the Great War itself its very own Requiem
Virginia Mayo as Lady Edith, says, “War, war! That’s all you ever think about, Dick Plantagenet!” in King Richard and the Crusades – deservedly remembered as one of the worst films ever made but the line has its own immortality and its own warning.
Trembling on the verge of this centennial of the Great War her foolish words warn us of that there’s much foolishness yet to come. It will purport to be profound or true or insightful and will all ooze much mawkish sentimental nationalism of the very ilk that got us into into the mess that was 1914-18.
The blame game puts Germany in the dock; arrogance made Serbia fair game; and with delusional hauteur Austria-Hungary put its head in a noose of its own making. Dynastic interest got Imperial Russia marching to war. Diplomatic interests tied France into Russia’s game plan. Germany’s game plan – by Alfred von Schlieffen – brought German troops into neutral Belgium. British sense of fair play offered us an excuse to take sides – the Liberal government thereby evading the twin perils of Irish Civil War and the havoc of union militancy was reeking in the working class. The intellectual conceit that War could resolve nations difficulties seized many minds and had become a respectable idea and treated war as a respectable game of sorts. The Nazis later pursued this mad idea to its logical conclusion.
Let’s remember the dead lost – all in the flower of youth – sacrificed to the vanity of mankind’s cleverness but let’s sadly observe that despite how many died how very little we have learned from that epic loss. That’s history’s lesson – we chose always to assemble a false image from the shattered glass of our fragile past and choose to believe in this false god until we repeat the same mistake again and again – always promising ourselves never to let it happen again. The history plays of Shakespeare are replete with such dire professions to learn from the past but still we heedlessly careered into the massacre that was the English Civil War in which there was another catastrophic similar loss of youth – and in which Oliver Cromwell conducted a quasi-genocide in Ireland from whose grim harvest still reap bitter fruits today.
Weep then for the dead and by tears remember them – but weep too for ourselves as we look at Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria and on around this world where needless death piles one on to the other and piles up hate for another generation to feed upon. Remember too – it need not be so. Whilst we treat war as a game we are all bound to be losers in the end.